Leaders: born or created?

By Helen Flint – Director, Head of Business Development

It’s Olympics fever in London and I’ve been glued to the screen watching and supporting Team GB rack up a great number of medals. Each competition I’ve seen, the camera pans to groups of the world’s leaders – from UK Prime Minister David Cameron and US First Lady Michelle Obama, to IOC President Jacques Rogge and Her Royal Highness, the Queen. This got me thinking about leadership; were these individuals destined to become leaders from birth or were they developed into the roles over the course of their lives?

The answer is complex and can be influenced by a number of factors. Firstly, it’s fair to say that a leader is born with some key attributes that can be used to become a great leader:

  • Sociability – communicating and influencing people at all levels, possessing a high level of emotional intelligence.
  • Compassion and empathy – an innate ability to be truly compassionate and caring.
  • Self-confidence – this is a very powerful trait; self-belief leaves leaders with the knowledge they’ll succeed. They embrace challenges, adapt quickly to adversity, make decisions with assurance and are not afraid to express their ideas and opinions.
  • Boldness – they function effectively in familiar and unfamiliar situations. Brave, daring and fearless; willing to go against the grain to try something different.
  • Assertiveness – they believe that being assertive and taking the offensive is essential to attaining success. They make things happen, and they’re not afraid to be forceful to achieve outcomes.
  • Leadership – the desire to lead, influence and / or control others – to be in charge. They assume this role naturally and enjoy it.

Some of these traits can be developed however, although this very much depends on the individual. If they have little or no desire to lead, they’ll lack the motivation required to create and enhance these skills.

  • Sociability requires one to have a genuine interest in people. If this is absent, it requires lot of energy and motivation to develop this skill. There’s also a danger that if no natural interest lies in this area; any efforts may seem disingenuous and false.
  •  Compassion and empathy are innate qualities you either have or not. They can be shaped and honed by an individual’s experience over time but are quite difficult to create from new.   
  • Self confidence is something that can be developed through coaching. It’s influenced by internal or external reference points. Those with an internal reference like to decide for themselves when making decisions whereas those with an external reference like to involve others in their decisions and are influenced by what others think of them. Often leaders have to make really tough, unpopular decisions and being internally referenced is a benefit here as they’re less worried about what others think. Again, however, these are traits which can be worked on and enhanced.
  • Being bold may be seen as an innate quality, however we can all challenge ourselves and / or be encouraged by others to step outside our comfort zone. Certain circumstances can create unexpected leaders, for example, in a disaster one may find themselves in a situation where only they have the knowledge to resolve – the accidental leader. Others will demonstrate momentary traits of boldness if they feel passionately about something.
  •  People who are self confident tend to be assertive. As these two attributes go hand in hand it’s important to develop both if they’re lacking. The key is to strike the right balance between being assertive but not too aggressive.

Leaders have the ability and desire to inspire and influence others; therefore it’s important they are demonstrating the leadership traits you expect your leaders to have in your organisation. They’re courageous and willing to speak out for the betterment of those around you. So in answer to this blog’s title, leaders don’t always have to be born – if they feel strongly enough about a cause they want to champion, or have a great desire to lead, then they will overcome their lack of ‘leadership skills’, by taking each opportunity they can to develop and achieve the desired outcome. A perfect example of this is Aung San Suu Kyi, chairperson of the National League for Democracy in Burma. She took on the leadership challenge in order to champion a cause she really believed in.

These attributes are not exhaustive however. In fact in our book, Purple Your People, we include a list of leadership characteristics which spans three pages! Things like charisma, clarity, decisiveness, positivity and ability to spot talent, are also important leadership traits. Again, depending on the individual, all of these can be developed and enhanced if the right attitude to leadership is present. I’d recommend taking a look and defining your leadership characteristics, then start developing and / or enhancing them in your people.

Do you know what your core leadership traits are? Do you agree that leaders can be created; or do you think they’re only born?

2012-08-07T00:00:00+00:00 August 7th, 2012|